Marshal Ramesh Pandya: "Learning to pull toilet paper was one of the biggest cultural challenges since my arrival to Europe."

I am from Mumbai, India. My father was a very high cast Hindu brahmin, whereas my mother was a Catholic. They were both from very different regions in India. However, they both met in Mumbai where they were working and eventually got married and settled there. Soon I was born and was raised up in a city environment.

Photo: Marshal with his wife Lenka on their wedding

English is the primary language in business, financial and social areas of India. Being educated in an English medium school is a matter of prestige. There are minimum 3 languages which a person studies at school in India. Hindi, the national language, one state language (for me this was Marathi) and English. My mother was originally from Goa so I learnt Konkani, the language spoken by her and since my father was from Gujrat, I also learnt Gujrati. Besides, living in Mumbai which is a cosmopolitan city, I managed to learn a few other languages. Eventually I learnt about 6 Indian languages besides English, nevertheless, now when I try to learn Slovak, I find it to be one of the most difficult language I have ever come across and am still struggling with it.  

Love and migration can surprise you at any age

I was married quite early in life, and by the time I was 23 years old, I was already a father of a beautiful daughter. She is now already married and living in Florida with her Greek husband and a daughter who is about 5 months old. (So, I am already a grandfather!!!). I have two other sons from this marriage.

Unfortunately, the marriage did not work. I was already divorced for about 12 years when I met this Slovak girl, Lenka, while I was at a Spiritual retreat centre in India.

I was on the other side of fifty when I met her. I had never thought of second marriage or that anything so spectacular would happen to me. I had accepted my state of life and was okay with going to the grave in this way.

However, what inspired me about Lenka was the fact that she was involved in some humanitarian projects in India. She truly lived to make the life of others (poorest of the poor students, from the lowest cast in India) better. We fell in love and decided to get married.

Photo: Marshal with his wife Lenka and daughter in India

Originally, we had planned to settle in India, as both of us were working there. However, situation in India, especially the abuse of women and children and such other unfortunate things, made us change our mind and we decided to settle in Slovakia.

This decision was quite a challenge for me, especially being on the other side of fifty. Not knowing the language. Not having a job or a house or even friends who would share my taste, culture, game, social life etc. Even my degree and qualification were rendered unacceptable when I was at the office of labour in Trnava. I was told that those degrees were not of any use.

Nevertheless, I am a man of faith and I believe that God helps us. When one door is closed, another opens. I believe it is my attitude of faith towards God which gives me the strength and courage to take risky and bold decisions in life.

So, I landed in Slovakia with my wife and our daughter, with the intention to settle here on 27th September 2018. My wife’s family were very supportive and treated me almost like a prince. Nevertheless, with all their good intentions, help and support, I would say, there always remained a gap in the closeness that we could have achieved, on account of some cultural and of course, language barriers.
Culturally shaken by Slovak habits and weather

In India, it is considered very rude and disrespectful to eat when you have guests at home. You make sure that they eat, not just invite or request them to eat, but almost push the food down their throats. However, it can never happen that you would have a guest sitting in your living room while you sit and eat your meal. For any Indian it is definitely a big culture shock. Slovakia taught me that if you are hungry, you should not make a fuss about eating. If you say no, the others will just go ahead and eat and then you should not feel offended.

In India, we employ people to do certain work, even the basic work at home, like washing dishes, clothes, cooking, cleaning the house, etc. About €80 to €100 is sufficient to have a maid working for you for a month. Besides, the painting of the house, or carpentry work, etc. are very readily available for a fraction of an amount compared to here. I had to learn that labour here is not cheap and that work is a primary liberating factor.

Photo: Marshal with his wife Lenka and daughter hiking in the mountains in Slovakia

The climate was another big challenge for me, not just in the way how I could handle the temperatures which I had never ever experienced in my life, but also some of the other things which may come very natural to you.

I have never had any connection with water heaters or radiators. The basic things which even a child in Slovakia would understand about these things I had to learn and understand. Unfortunately, all the instruction and manuals are in Slovak so it was even more difficult for me to familiarise with those things.

Pulling out toilet paper from the roll I had to learn, for I did not know how much of it would be two strips. For the first few times I had to be really conscious and aware about it. You may laugh at what I am writing here, nevertheless, this was one of the biggest struggles I had. In India, we use water to wash ourselves after we have done our „job”. Using toilet paper was one big challenge for me.

Some parts of India have severe climate, the temperatures are very high throughout the year, the sun is very strong. However, in such temperatures, people make sure that they are covered completely to avoid being burnt by the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Just like you see Arabs living in very extreme heat covering themselves. However, the paradox is that in Slovakia, as the winter changes to spring and later to summer, people start shedding the layers of their clothes, eventually to reach a point where they would wear almost nothing. I somehow, fail to accept this attitude. For the fact remains that no matter how scanty you dress, the heat will always take you on. And so, in summer, it is very difficult for me to comprehend how people can dress so scantly. It becomes very difficult for me to keep my eyes off them as my brain struggles to see the logic behind it. I am sure for people here it is acceptable, nevertheless, for me it is a great culture barrier that I am struggling to overcome.

Even after all this time, I have not been able to get comfortable with the taste of the Slovak food. I always look for my spices most often when I sit for a meal.
Having a “private” interpreter as a family member is a great advantage

I believe that foreigners who would like to live in Trnava, need to prepare themselves for the cultural differences and the language. I see that the foreigners who came here as students and have lived on, are the ones who have been able to get accepted in the society much better than those who happen to come here like I did, at a later age for work or with social involvement.

When I look back now, I think, I would have definitely prepared myself better with regard to the cultural differences, and the qualification and certificates which would be recognised in Slovakia.

When the lockdown started at the beginning of the year, life as I knew it, changed. About 2 weeks before the government announced the lockdown, we had already anticipated it and prepared ourselves with some big shopping. Nevertheless, it was quite difficult living in an apartment which was on the 8th floor with very limited access outside. During those days India was still quite oblivious of the situation which was happening in other countries, so I had the chance to speak to my sons and brother to warn them of the seriousness of the situation. Some of the friends who I spoke to were of the opinion that the virus would not survive in the Indian heat and so they did not have the need to worry much.

Nevertheless, the inevitable has happened. India is one of the worst hit countries today. Being in Europe helped me to assess the situation from a wider perspective and warn the people who I could about the situation that they were heading towards.

Now in the second wave, things are even more serious. I know of friends and associates both in India and Slovakia who are fighting the virus. I know of people who have lost the fight and died, at the same time I know of people who have been victorious over the virus and have come out of it. I know of friends who are volunteering and helping in the effort to fight the virus.

Since I have a Slovak wife who can translate the messages and keep me informed about what is happening, I believe, I have had a much easy time. However, had that not been the case, I believe that I would have had great difficulty as all the information on the leaflets is in Slovak. I receive SMS from the government agencies warning about the situation or giving guidelines to help me. These are all useless for me as they are in Slovak and even after using the google translator, the message sometimes doesn’t make sense. The mass testing would have been a disaster for me for the same reason.
Cities have KapaCIty and a great potential hides also in local foreigners

One thing that was really a blessing to me in the earlier days of my coming to Slovakia, was the opportunity that I got to work as a ‘cultural mediator’ as part of the KapaCITY project. I had opportunities to meet many people from different countries who were living in Trnava. We were able to share the challenges and the achievements. This forum helped me to understand how others are coping with the situation and also gave me an opportunity to work closely with them.

I was able to involve the management of PSA in Trnava to look at the need of integration of almost thousand foreigners who work for them. I was able to work with the mayor’s team and came very close to establishing a team in collaboration with them to help foreigners to settle in a smooth way in Trnava. We managed to have quite a few meetings with foreigners living in Trnava creating awareness of our activity and making sure that they knew that we were there to help them if they needed any help. We had stalls at the Christmas market and other such occasions in Trnava to create awareness.

Photo credits: Martin Halčák

Unfortunately, during that time my wife went through some health issues which needed me to relook at my priorities and hence I had to give up my involvement with this wonderful project. I have always cherished the memories of the time I had spent with the team on the KapaCITY project.

I believe that cultural mediation is one important aspect of life in Trnava, it is needed for both the local natives as well as the foreigners. The local life in Trnava can definitely be enriched by the involvement of people from other countries who can contribute from their resources which they bring along as a part of their culture, skills and abilities.

My vision was to have a forum or a team which would work in collaboration with the town municipality. Having this collaboration is, in my opinion, of a prime importance. Such team then could work with authenticity. I would really love to see such a team work along with the foreigners in a mutual understanding of a give-and-take that brings a win-win situation for all.

Foreigners could contribute with sharing their skills and abilities, like teaching language, sports or other such training (art, science, medicine, etc.) while the locals could buddy with them to make life easier, like helping with school-going children, assist with government offices, appointment with doctors, getting medicine from medical stores or other such needs.

Forming such a group and then working on creating awareness of such group through foreign police office or the airport, immigration centres or the doctor´s clinics, hospitals or city police, etc. would be a very powerful and influential beginning to a very comprehensive work that could be done in this area. A mobile phone number that would always be available to speak to foreigners in English and other common foreign languages would be another very important step. Such number could be on a WhatsApp group whereby others could contribute besides the admin as well.

English speaking doctors, lawyers, tax consultants and other such professionals, as well as representatives of the city police, foreign police, town municipality, etc. could be a part of such a WhatsApp group.

An office or a place could be made available for such a group to operate from. The foreigners could contribute by volunteering to maintain such an office or a place. Cultural and social activity, trainings and teaching of skills like cooking, language, dancing, music, games, etc. could be carried out in such a centre. Children’s group, women and men’s groups could work there as well. Help in renting or buying houses or offices, setting up businesses could be an activity which could be carried out from there. People could also bring thing which they are not using anymore but which are still in good condition and it could be offered for donation or swap etc..

I believe, cultural mediation in Slovakia has tremendous potential. With the right kind of people working together there can be a great success. Prenominal achievements are waiting to be accomplished. 
Marshal Ramesh Pandya

Personal testimonies of foreigners were published as part of activities of the KapaCITY project, which is co-funded by the European Union from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Affairs Funds.